Austin’s city manager gets green light to work on plans for sobriety center

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council gave the green light Thursday for the city manager, Marc Ott, to get together with other officials and community members to develop an implementation plan and funding strategy for a sobriety center.  Last week Travis County Commissioner’s gave the ‘OK’ to work with Austin officials to develop one.

The sobriety centers, also known as ‘drunk tanks,’ are places to secure publicly intoxicated people deemed a danger to themselves or others.  It could also offer support and encourage treatment for alcoholism.

It’s also seen as an alternative to jail for public intoxication offenses.  The Austin-Travis County EMS Association said earlier this month that a sobriety center would free up police officers’ time that’s now spent on those types of criminal bookings.  In 2013 3,754 people were arrested for public intoxication.  In that same year, the University of Texas Police arrested 169 people.

“If it’s someone that’s just stumbling down 6th St. or down the road after having a good time at a bar, they still would face a public intoxication charge, but it might be more appropriate setting sending them to a sobriety center as opposed to putting them in lock up,” said City Council Member Mike Martinez.  He, along with Council Member Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo are sponsors of the resolution.

Martinez said it costs about $100 a day to jail someone just for detoxification, when it’s really a medical matter.

“Obviously is somebody commits a crime while being publicly intoxicated that’s going to be a decision for law enforcement to make whether they do take them down to central booking and have them incarcerated,” said Martinez.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo offered his opinion on the center after the Chief’s Run earlier this week.  He said there are pros and cons to having something like this in Austin.

“Do I think it’s worth exploration? Absolutely,” said Acevedo. “But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, including who pays for it and under what circumstances would people be specifically placed in that detox center.”

While Acevedo thinks the city should look into the idea, he has some concerns.

“Listen we’re one of the drunkest cities in the country, I don’t want to create something where people think , ‘Hey come to Austin, get as drunk as you want and you don’t have worry about it there’s no consequences, we’ll just stick you in a place to sober up and that’s it,” said Acevedo.  “That’s an invitation to chaos as far as I am concerned.”

Houston and San Antonio have sobriety centers.  In San Antonio, the Center for Health Care Services runs it as part of it’s homeless shelter.  According to the Houston Chronicle, the Bayou city’s sobriety center costs $1.5 million a  year.

The resolution directs the City Manager to work with  Travis County Justice and Public Safety Division, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, the Travis County Criminal Courts and Prosecution, the Seton Healthcare Family, the Psychiatric Services Stakeholder work group, and other community members.

Dr. Christopher Ziebell,  medical director for University Medical Center Brackenridge Emergency Department, is a huge supporter of the center and is working with the city.   He said the ER takes in a lot of drunk people during the weekend which can get in the way of normal operations.

“There are days when we have people in the stretchers going up and down the hallways and security presence, nurses and police trying to keep everybody under control trying to keep everybody safe and obviously that’s not ideal if you happen to be the unfortunate person who comes in having a stroke in the middle of all that,” said Dr. Ziebell.

He believes having sobriety centers would also cut down costs.

“Even for the folks who come through the emergency department that’s a very expensive location to take care of somebody and again if we had a better place to take them that’s just as good medically but not as expensive,” said Ziebell.  “That would save the community a lot of money so we’re having conversations how we’re already spending the money let’s spend it better.”

Marc Ott has until Sept. 1 to show city council his findings over the next couple of months of who would pay for a center, where it would be located, and a list of other questions that are still on the table.

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